The Walking Dead, part two: Comics, Creators, and Compelling Storytelling

It’s a common theme I’ve noticed running through a lot of zombie apoca-lit: Other people, not zombies, represent the real danger. That’s certainly true in The Walking Dead—in the comics and in real life.

Partway through the first hardcover volume of The Walking Dead, I notice that principle art duties shift from Tony Moore to Charlie Adlard. Writer Robert Kirman remains at the helm.

Turns out, in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, Moore and Kirkman—who had been friends since childhood before collaborating to co-create The Walking Deadturned on each other

Moore’s artwork has been riveting: highly detailed, realistic but with a slightly cartoonish bent, clearly influenced by modern legend Arthur Adams. I’m disappointed to see him go, especially since Adlard’s work, while grittier and more evocative of an apocalypse-weary world, is less distinctive.

It’s spring, 2011. I’ve watched the entire Walking Dead TV series on DVD, and I want more. I immediately turn to the source material: The Walking Dead comic book series. The fanboy in me is delighted, and the book collector in me even moreso when I discover that the comics have been anthologized in a series of handsome hardcovers.

I order the first two volumes, which collect The Walking Dead #1-#12 and #13-#24. Even after he gave up regular art duties after issue six, Moore continued to do the artwork for the covers, included in the back of each hardcover. When they arrive, I read through them in a single shot. It takes me hours. I am delighted.

Before I even finish the first book, though, I go to Amazon and order books three through six, which will get me through issue #72 of the comic (when they finally arrive). I’m not finished with hardcover collection number-one, yet, and already it seems like forever before I’ll be able to keep reading. I’ll eventually see that book seven is slated for an October 2011 release, and my anticipation will grow into zombiesque hunger.

Kirkman spins a dramatic narrative that’s that good. Like the AMC series, the graphic novels follow deputy Rick Grimes as he tries to first make sense of the world gone wrong, then as he tries to find his wife and son, who have fled the zombie plague with Rick’s partner, Shane.

But the books differ widely from the TV series—but, I realize, I frame it that way only because I saw the series first. The TV series, in fact, differs widely from the comics. Once upon a time, the comic book fanboy in me would’ve judged the show harshly for such deviation, but in my adult years, I’ve come to learn to let adaptations stand on their own merits, apart from original source material. In the case of The Walking Dead, both have tremendous merits, in large part, I think, because of Kirkman’s involvement.

What I come to appreciate about Kirkman’s writing in the comics is that he’s not afraid to shake things up. In most comics, there’s a certain status quo that must almost always be preserved: Superman and Lois Lane will have the hots for each other, Spider-Man’s identity will remain secret, the arch-nemesis will always return, and so on. Even death seems temporary: Characters who die off seldom stay dead. (And oh, how true that is in Kirkman’s world of zombies!)

In fact, Kirkman kills off major characters with surprisingly alacrity, yet only once did it ever seem like he was doing so out of gratuitousness (I’m not giving away spoilers, but it’s a two-fer that happens at the end of book four). While there are times when the relationships feel soap-operaesque, and the compressed timeline—characters measure lifespans in weeks, not years—does add an extra urgency that makes some of the drama feel like melodrama, but for the most part, Kirkman creates well-realized characters in believable relationships and situations. There’s always emotional weight to Kirkman’s decisions, earned through careful attention to characterization in every comic. He racks up a high body count, but he spends as much time on character development as he does on carnage.

And yes, it is, after all, a story of the zombie apocalypse, so there’s a high body count and there’s lots of gore and grossness. Adlard’s art, in particular, doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness, either. There’s a torture scene in book four—which stands as the most shocking volume of the series in all sorts of ways—that gives me the willies for days after I read it (and still gives me the willies if I don’t block it out).

Zombies provide the milieu, but other people provide the biggest threat. In book one, Rick’s biggest threat comes from his partner and best friend, Shane. In book two, the internal tensions between members of Rick’s group of survivors prove to be the biggest threat. In books three and four, the group finds an old prison to hole up in, and a group of brigands led by the so-called “Governor” tries to wrest it from their control. And so on… Of particular note are the many different ways people fray along the edges and unravel.

When things get too stale, Kirkman reboots the series by changing principle cast members, changing locations, or raising the stakes in some significant way. Even Rick, as the series’ protagonist, isn’t immune.

All the while, behind the scenes, Kirkman relationship with Moore continued to deteriorate, mostly because of rights issues related to the TV show. It’s ugly business, The Walking Dead is.

I don’t learn about the Kirkman/Moore feud until well after I’ve finished reading the whole series of hardcover collections. While unfortunate, it doesn’t really impact my appreciation of the books; it just disappoints me to know that Moore’s return to the series would be highly unlikely. Adlard’s work has grown on me, but it lacks the flash of Moore’s first impression on me.

I opted for the collection of hardcover books (seven of them so far), but publisher Image Comics has also collected the comics in a series of trade paperbacks (sixteen of them so far) and a large paperback compendium that anthologizes issues #1-48. Image also issued The Walking Dead Weekly, reprints of the original comic, reissued in order on a weekly basis.And, of course, there’s the regular monthly comic.

That’s a whole lot of Walking Dead.

But, as it turns out, that’s not all. In the wake of his split with Moore, I see that Kirkman has opted for a cast change again. He’s teamed up with a new creative partner, Jay Bonansinga, for a novel. Release date: October 11, 2011. It’s the first week of October when I notice this and am pleased that I won’t have the interminable wait I’ve had in anticipation of hardcover book seven.

The novel, I discover, will take a different tack from the rest of The Walking Dead franchise. It’s not going to follow the adventures of deputy Rick Grimes. Instead, the protagonist is one of the series’ most infamous figures….

The wait is on.

(To be concluded…)